The Super Bowl Champs reside in the AFC North, and despite that, the Ravens have had to make some pretty massive changes to their roster, more than any usual Super Bowl Champ would have to. Many people think the Ravens are in for a drop off, but do I? The Bengals don't look all that different from the team that has made the playoffs two consecutive seasons, but can they finally win a playoff game? The Steelers are in a state of flux, and with all of their roster changes, can they compete? And will the Browns make the postseason for the first time since 2002, or short of that, be competitive?
In Baltimore, the narrative states that the Ravens will be worse off without some of their leaders from last year, namely Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Anquan Boldin. Now if you are a dedicated reader of this site, you know what I think of narratives. So, I will make the bold prediction here that the Ravens will in fact be better than they were a year ago. Now before you bust down my internet door, I didn't think the Ravens defense was all that good last season, and despite all of the new starters, they are very good. They now have to replace Ellerbe, Kruger, Lewis, and Reed the good group of Arthur Brown, Marcus Spears, Daryl Smith (criminally underrated throughout his career), and Matt Elam, need we forget Elvis Dumervill. They will have to workout some kinks in the early going, but by the stretch the Ravens D should be better than it was a year ago. On offense, they have some depth issues at WR and TE, but that's not a major concern based on preseason performances. So the retooled Ravens are better than the team that took them to glory last season. Funny league, this.
The Bengals have had the HBO spotlight on them this training camp, and it's put some important pieces into perspective for them. They still have depth everywhere offensively, including adding talented rookies Gio Bernard and Tyler Eifert into the mix. They have one of the best defensive lineman in the league in Geno Atkins. Their secondary and linebacking corps are both solid. So why don't I see them winning the division? They've hit the glass ceiling, where the supplemental pieces added to the roster are good, but won't likely put them over the top. They should be in the playoff mix once again, and maybe this year they'll get around to winning a game when they get there.
It has been quite a long time since we could accurately describe the Steelers as a bad team. Now we aren't there yet, but this team is on the precipice of the bottom falling out. Last year, they had the traditional stout Steelers D of old, but they didn't force turnovers. Also, their offense slipped massively due to offensive line problems and a lack of a running game. And... those problems haven't really been fixed this season. They are one or two offensive line injuries away from disaster, their running back situation is still massively in flux, and Big Ben can't constantly take the punishment he keeps getting. Most of their defense is good on the top end, but lacking in depth as well. The Steelers could easily win the AFC North if all goes well. They could also finish 5-11 if it all goes wrong, too.
For Cleveland, their new regime under Rob Chudzinski has to take time in order for the full changes to take effect. They have got good pieces in place, like Trent Richardson, Joe Haden, Josh Gordon and others scattered across their roster, but they are not a complete team yet. Brandon Weeden might be in only his second NFL season, but he'll be 30 in October. Is he the answer to the Browns long standing QB issues? The preseason has shown some positive signs, but the true answer is probably not on their roster right now. The wins won't come until their QB situation isn't in a constant state of flux, and the new regime hasn't yet picked their guy, so we won't know until that happens whether the Browns will finally escape the grip of a losing cycle.
In summary... Against conventional wisdom I think the Ravens are better than they were a season ago, the Bengals are pretty much the same but the playoffs are still very likely, the Steelers are primed for the bottom to fall out, and the Browns are starting over... again.